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JAUNTS: In and around Ventura County | VENTURA COUNTY

A Natural Gift

Exercise your options on Father's Day. Take a hike, enjoy the sights.


If you're tired of fretting over what to do on Father's Day, this year just tell dear old dad to take a hike--literally--and then tell him you'll go along.

Breakfast in bed and the traditional giving of the gifts are dad pleasers. But maybe what he really wants is a little quality time out on the trail. Throw in a waterfall, a wildflower or two, and you'll make his day.

A couple of organized hikes scheduled Sunday--one near Agoura Hills, the other in Thousand Oaks--are billed as Father's Day outings, leisurely leg stretchers that won't exhaust young or old.

At the Peter Strauss Ranch near Agoura Hills, families can join a docent for a moderately easy, 1.5-mile hike and a glimpse into the history of this once-thriving resort with its colossal swimming pool.

"We've had such success with our Mother's Day [event] here that we decided we ought to be nice to Dad too," said Daphne Elliott, docent coordinator for the Topanga Canyon Docents, which sponsors the outing along with the Sierra Club.

The two-hour free program starts at 10 a.m., and Elliott said families can bring their lunch, picnic on the grounds next to Triunfo Creek, and make a day of it.

The well-groomed trail overlooking the ranch gently switchbacks up an oak-canopied hillside and loops back down. You might get lucky and see a peacock skitter through the brush.

"There are three living there," Elliott said. "They're friendly, not shy at all." Where they came from, no one seems to know, but they've been there for years. They disappeared for a while, and then mysteriously returned.

They're not the only splashes of color you're likely to see. The woolly blue curls--a flowering shrub with an unusual woolly look--are in bloom, a must-see plant, according to Elliott.

If cactus is more to your liking, you'll appreciate the big cactus garden in the driveway to the ranch house. Former ranch owner Peter Strauss planted it, collecting cactuses from Central and South America. Strauss, an actor, first saw the ranch in 1976 when he was filming the television miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man" near Malibu Lake. He bought it for $200,000.

Strauss restored the old white-trimmed stone ranch house and spruced up the neglected grounds. But he was too busy with his career to keep the property, so he sold it to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy in 1983. The National Park Service picked it up in 1987 and opened it as a park. Meanwhile, Strauss, who moved to Ojai, most recently played a police psychiatrist in the CBS-TV drama "Moloney," which was canceled last month after a season opposite "Seinfeld."

But the ranch's brush with celebrity dates back to 1923 when Harry Miller, inventor of the carburetor, built the house along the creek as a weekend retreat. He and his wife were animal lovers, and they built an aviary and collected wild animals such as bears, mountain lions, deer, even parrots and monkeys.

The Depression wiped out Miller, and in the 1930s two Malibu Lake residents bought the secluded ranch. They opened it to the public, marketing it as a "fairyland of charm and paradise." Then, in the late 1930s, lawyer and real estate speculator Charles Hinman took it over, expanding it into a popular resort, humming with amusement rides, kids' summer camps, parties, picnics under the eucalyptus trees, fishing, swimming and concerts in a stone-terraced amphitheater.

Hinman marketed it as Lake Enchanto--so named for the small lake he created by constructing a dam on Triunfo Creek. But the big draw was a swimming pool billed as the largest west of the Rockies, which could accommodate 3,000 people at one time.

After its heyday in the 1950s, Hinman left the area for several years and the place languished until Strauss came along. The lake is gone now, washed away by flooding on the creek, and the huge swimming pool is an empty concrete pit.

Today the ranch is a shady, peaceful spot in the Santa Monica Mountains that gets little traffic during the week. The trail is a good one for novice hikers.

If you want a little more of a walk, you can join others for a Father's Day amble into Wildwood Park in Thousand Oaks. The Conejo Recreation and Park District's outdoor unit is offering this one from 2 to 4:30 p.m. The cost is $5 per carload.

Naturalists will take families on a two- to three-mile walk down into the deep, shady canyon that gives this 1,700-acre park such a secluded feel, despite its suburban location.

The route will take you along a creek to a waterfall that flows strong, even in the summer. Here you might spot two rare plants, the Conejo buckwheat and the Conejo dudleya. There will be a stop at the park's nature center.

"It will be leisurely," said naturalist Tom Maxwell. "We'll look at the flowers, birds and insects."


Father's Day hikes: Sun., at Peter Strauss Ranch, 3000 Mulholland Highway, near Agoura Hills; 10 a.m.-noon, free. (818) 707-8540. Also at Wildwood Park, at the west end of Avenida de los Arboles; 2-4:30 p.m., $5 per carload. (818) 495-2163.

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